Elevated levels of lead have been found in Newark, NJ schools. What may surprise you is how unsurprising this news actually is, and how easy it is to miss detection of lead in public school drinking water.
Nationally, the current law only requires schools or districts running their own water systems to test for lead. In New Jersey, that requirement applies to less than 300 schools and day care centers. There are approximately 4,000 public and private schools in New Jersey, according to Newsworks.
Some New Jersey state lawmakers are seeking to change this by passing a bill that would require all schools to test their drinking water. A parallel effort has been undertaken at the federal level, with the proposed Transparent Environment in School Testing (TEST) for Lead Act. TEST would require any school district which receives federal clean water funds to test their drinking water for lead.
Of course, the presence of lead in school drinking water is not a problem unique to Newark. Recently, schools elsewhere in New Jersey have detected elevated lead levels, and schools in Ohio have closed due to high levels of lead in drinking water. Cities like Boston, Baltimore, and Camden, NJ have water delivered to their schools over lead concerns.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave our country’s drinking water infrastructure a grade of D. In arriving at this conclusion, ASCE noted that “our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life.”
With that in mind, routine testing of the drinking water that children have access to for much of their day is an important protective step, as children are especially vulnerable to harms from lead. But it is not wholly remedial. Mandating water testing can only protect us for so long, and it will only alert us to the presence of lead, and help manage it, rather than eliminating lead’s presence. The problem will never be adequately addressed without updates to our ailing infrastructure.